Pupil trauma and wellbeing post-lockdown

Written by: Amy Sayer | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When pupils leave lockdown, and return to school it is anticipated that staff will face a range of pastoral, wellbeing and behaviour issues. Teacher and mental health first-aider Amy Sayer considers the challenges that lie ahead...

As a teacher, it seems that there is an expectation that we instinctively know what to say and do with students who are experiencing mental health struggles. However, the coronavirus pandemic will have created a whole new range of traumatic experiences that will have affected many children in different ways.

These might include, for example, financial difficulties their families have faced, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse as a result of “lockdown” conditions or the death of friends or family members.

Elsewhere, many key-worker children will have been worried about their parents working in dangerous conditions and may have had disrupted and unusual childcare arrangements as a result.

Indeed, many children may not have had a structured routine, others will have had to care for relatives with physical or mental illnesses for the first time. The list goes on...

All this will mean that re-adjusting back to the inflexible school routine and getting back to “normal” learning could be tricky for many young people – and that is even before you consider the added components of trauma.

These traumatic experiences will mean that students’ mental health could be significantly affected. They could be experiencing various trauma-related symptoms such as extreme worrying or anxiety, insomnia, a sense of hopelessness or intense fear.

This may exhibit itself in certain behaviours within the school environment, and even though staff will have been trained in aspects of supporting student mental health, the fear is that after coronavirus, the challenges we will face will be on a scale we have not seen before.

Prior to Covid-19, there was an average of three students per-class facing some sort of mental health problem – this is likely to rise after the potential traumas I have touched upon.

Trauma can present itself differently to other mental health issues and has the potential to change a child’s behaviour significantly if they do not have the coping strategies needed to deal with such significant and life-changing events.

Let’s be honest – even many adults will have been changed by the pandemic and may not be sure how to cope or deal with the trauma they have experienced. However, the difference is that adults will have had more opportunity and experience with adversity in their lives. They will know that things can improve, symptoms can be managed and that the world can seem like a safe place again.

In his book, Body Keeps the Score (2014), Bessel Van der Kolk argues that our bodies can be chemically altered by trauma and that this can cause a variety of poor mental health outcomes: “When something reminds traumatised people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the event were happening in the present. But because their left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are re-experiencing and re-enacting the past – they are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed or frozen.”

So, schools will need to be mindful of the language they are using about coronavirus and not trivialise it – or underestimate how it has affected children. They will also need to correct any insensitive comments that other students are making about the pandemic so that vulnerable young people are not “triggered”.

Many students may exhibit different behaviour. If their bodies have been affected by trauma and they are experiencing extreme anxiety, they could be in a “fight or flight” mode due to the biological changes that are happening.

If they are in “fight” mode, they are more likely to be confrontational, aggressive, loud and potentially more physical in their behaviour. This is because they are struggling to contain the amount of adrenaline going through their body. This can be a useful coping mechanism in the short-term to help deal with the trauma in the immediate moment. However, if they have not processed the trauma or have adequate coping mechanisms, this could come across in their behaviour.

Alternatively, if they are in “flight” mode they may suddenly leave the classroom as they cannot cope with certain feelings or shut down completely and become withdrawn in lessons.

How to help your students

Staff empathy and compassion and our ability to maintain positive and meaningful relationships with students could be tested by the behaviours they exhibit.

Children will need to have an adult to talk to about their feelings and emotions, which will need processing after experiencing trauma. Due to the lack of funding in many mental health services, it often comes down to teachers or a member of school staff who can be that safe and trusted adult.

Schools will need to pull together as a community to create a narrative and support structure for their most vulnerable students to process any traumas from coronavirus. Here are some strategies and ideas which could be used to help staff to support students showing signs of trauma.

A support plan: We may need to develop a support plan for vulnerable students that can be shared with their teachers confidentially. For example, an exit pass may be needed to allow a student to leave a lesson and go to a supervised designated safe space when they are feeling overwhelmed or too anxious to cope with their lesson.

Coping with grief: Helping the child to process grief will be challenging if they have lost a close friend or family member. They might need to be guided through different ways to express their sadness. This could be through writing, art, music or whichever therapeutic style works for them as an individual. They need to express their feelings and emotions in a way that is right for them. There are many great charities set up to help childhood grief, including Winston’s Wish, Child Bereavement UK or online resources from Young Minds (see further information).

Strategies and techniques: Giving students different techniques and strategies to help to manage anxiety such as exercise, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises, music or art therapies will be useful. The traumatised body needs strategies to self-calm and soothe so that they can bring down the unnecessary levels of adrenaline in the body and feel more in control.

Family engagement: Working closely with families will be vital. Giving students’ families practical strategies and education about how to support their child will make a huge difference to how they are able to process their trauma and develop coping strategies.

Supporting school staff too: School staff themselves will need to have a system in place in school to manage their own mental health. There needs to be a procedure in place for being able to “offload” in the same way that trained counsellors receive supervision.

Also, children may want to disclose some of the traumatic things that they have experienced during “lockdown” and this will need to be reported through usual child protection procedures. However, staff should not be left to sit with these stories on their own. They may need support themselves.

The trauma gap

A report from Barnardo’s earlier this year – entitled Time for a clean slate – warned us of the “trauma gap” as children return, with those who were already vulnerable likely to have been badly affected.

The charity says that a return to business as usual could be very damaging for many young people and calls for a “readjustment period” of at least one term (Barnardo’s, 2020; Headteacher Update, 2020).

Its suggestions include a more flexible curriculum, making time for children to socialise with friends who they have not seen, and more focus on pastoral care, play, outdoor activities and creative opportunities. It lists some approaches already in place in some schools:

  • A gradual, phased return, with a flexible curriculum.
  • Risk-assessing children on their return.
  • Enabling the most vulnerable children to return first.
  • Focus on mental health and wellbeing in lessons.
  • Dedicated time for young people to talk about their lockdown/Covid experience.
  • More time for children and young people to play, be creative, and socialise with friends
  • More pastoral provision, including one-to-one support for pupils.
  • Physical spaces for staff and pupils, e.g. quiet rooms and remembrance gardens.

Amy Sayer is a mental health first-aider and head of religious studies. She been teaching in secondary schools for 12 years and has previously been a mental health lead. Her first book will be out in January 2021 and will be about supporting staff mental health in schools.

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